Christians Under Fire in Colorado

  • Share
  • Read Later
Colorado Springs Gazette / MCT / Landov

Police surround New Life Church after a gunman opened fire on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Even before two of its teenage congregants were shot near their car on Sunday, New Life Church in Colorado Springs had been dealing with a legacy of trauma. At the end of 2006, the megachurch had suffered through a sex scandal after its founder Ted Haggard admitted to a relationship with a male escort. Church membership plummeted from 14,000 to 10,000. Now, with a new pastor on board only since August, the church is once again in the national spotlight, this time as part of a shocking two-episode multiple murder. At a press conference today, the church's new leader, Brady Boyd, called for prayer for the family of the victims, Stephanie and Rachael Works, sisters who were 18 and 16. But Boyd also asked for prayers for the family of their killer: "He has a mom and dad somewhere... and ... we know that there is a grieving process for them as well."

Today, police announced that there were positive forensics matches between the crime scene at the church and the evidence left behind 12 hours earlier when Tiffany Johnson, 26, and Philip Crouse, 24, were shot and killed at a missionary training center for the group Youth With a Mission (YWAM), 65 miles away in Arvada. The shooter had reportedly been trying to ask for a place to stay, but when Johnson tried to refer him elsewhere, he shot her. Police are now focusing on 24-year old Matthew Murray — the gunman in the New Life Church shooting, who was shot and killed by an armed New Life security volunteer — as the likely gunman in the earlier shooting as well. Murray, whose last known address was with his parents in Colorado's Arapahoe County, had apparently brought several smoke bombs with him to New Life. The police bomb squad was reportedly called into his parents' home during a search. Indeed, the police had searched the home of Murray's parents before the New Life incident occurred.

There are several connections between New Life and YWAM (pronounced Why-wham): the missionary training group rents office space at New Life and some of its young trainees attend the church. Murray was reportedly associated with the YWAM Arvada center in 2002. The two murdered sisters were also said to have frequented the same center.

Might there have been some known threat that affected both organizations? At New Life, the security guard who killed Murray had been stationed in the church's central Rotunda as part of an evacuation-and-defense plan that the church's head of security implemented when news of the YWAM shooting broke. But rather than indicating a deeper connection between YWAM and New Life, Boyd said that the enhanced security was simply a precaution. "That's the reality of our world," he said on Monday. "I don't think any of us grew up in churches where that was the reality, but today it is."

The little that is known of the suspected shooter is that he may have been home-schooled as a child and a teen. His association with YWAM was brief, according to KMGH Channel 7, ABC's Denver affiliate, because directors said there were "health" issues. The TV station also said Murray's family was "religious." Last year, according to the Denver Post, he enrolled for one class at the Colorado Christian University but barely began the course and dropped out. The Associated Press has a police source who says Murray "hated Christians."

New Life and YWAM share similar motivating ideas and agendas. The two organizations, says Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministry Study Center, in New Haven, Conn., are both "quintessential expressions of post-modern Christianity." In very different ways, each has been promoting the spread of a user-friendly, Charismatic brand of the faith that leaves denominations behind while focusing on the dynamic, crowd-pleasing so-called Gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophesying and speaking in tongues. In its own way, adds Scott Moreau, Professor of Missions and Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois, each is "cutting-edge."

Yet there may be a significant difference in their ability to recover from the weekend's bloodshed. YWAM, perhaps the biggest trainer and sponsor of overseas missionaries in the world, is decentralized (the Arvada center was something of a branch office) and robustly healthy. On the other hand, New Life is centralized, campus-oriented, and has already been staggered by the resignation of Haggard.

YWAM was founded in 1960, primarily to train and promote short-term missionary work by evangelical young people. It boasts a staff of 16,000 people in 149 countries, and its local offices have considerable autonomy. It is well respected in the larger general evangelical world for taking on one of its most necessary tasks: making sure that the thousands of teenagers and twentysomethings flooding into developing nations to do missionary work have at least some grounding before they depart. Notes Moreau, YWAM is "lean, it's nimble, creative, and there's very little hierarchical control." It has dealt with tragedy before. In December 2005, eight YWAM associates were killed and several others injured in a van accident in Nigeria.

New Life is another story. It grew even faster than YWAM after Haggard founded it in 1984. It too, was vastly creative, helping to define the modern megachurch and experimenting, among other things, with a facility that Haggard hoped would become the NORAD for "prayer war," a Charismatic practice taken up against demons. Despite its size, the church was keyed to the magnetism of one man, Haggard, and after his departure in shame, the church limped along without a pastor until Boyd, a Texas minister, took over.

Boyd seemed contained and in control at a press conference he gave at New Life today. "This is a very strong church," he said. "It has a history of surviving trauma, and it will do well. It will be okay." Whether he was being prophetic or just hopeful will become evident as he shepherds his twice-shaken flock through the next few months. With reporting by Rita Healy/Denver